‘What happened was forgiven and forgotten,’ al-Waleed said after his release from 83 days of captivity in the hotel. “I was never tortured,” he added brightly. “Actually, I was given the best service, to be honest with you, by the Saudi government.” One of the world’s richest men was sounding incredibly grateful for his captivity.
Al-Waleed was just one of a dozen senior princes detained. Among them was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard and son of the previous king.
Saudi officials disclosed that the price tag for his release had been more than $US1 billion. Publicising such an enormous figure was in itself a way of destroying a rival’s reputation and with it perhaps his chances of ever acceding to the throne.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” President Trump tweeted in support of the detentions. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ the country for years!”
The US President’s tweet read like permission for MBS to carry on, regardless. It may not have been a coincidence that Trump’s endorsement followed a telephone call a few days earlier in which he had tried to persuade King Salman to hold the first listing of the Saudi state oil company, Aramco, on an American stock exchange.
Relatives of some of those detained would later thank Khashoggi in person for writing about the affair in The Washington Post, where he called it the “Night of the Long Knives”. “Mohammed bin Salman is acting like Putin,” he wrote, accusing the prince of imposing selective justice to centralise his own power. He also pointed out that the prince had himself spent $US500 million on a luxury yacht in 2015. “The buck stops at the leader’s door,” he concluded. “We are a kingdom of silence no longer.”
Eyewitnesses said among those working in the hotel were Brigadier-General Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, the commander of the Rapid Intervention Group who later intercepted Khashoggi in Istanbul; and Saud al-Qahtani, MBS’s social media tsar, who took part in hotel interrogations and who had earlier banned Khashoggi from writing.
MBS had predicted the operation would result in cash and assets worth around $US100 billion being transferred to the state coffers; a figure equivalent to $US106 billion was later confirmed, though nobody knew the truth. “Is this also about sending a message that, as we say in America, there’s a new sheriff in town?” Norah O’Donnell of CBS’s 60 Minutes asked MBS the following March.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” he replied.
“It was an opportunity for the crown prince to settle some scores and to fatten the coffers of the kingdom,” Bob Jordan, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me. “At the time they were bleeding money, largely due to the war in Yemen.”
‘All the checks and balances are gone’
On November 3, 2017, the day before the Ritz-Carlton round-ups began, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri had flown to Riyadh for talks after an apparent summons from King Salman. Hariri was a dual Lebanese-Saudi national with a home in Riyadh, his family having made its fortune in construction there. The prime minister had also been told he would accompany the Saudi crown prince on a camping trip to the desert the following day. There was no standard ceremonial greeting at Riyadh airport. Instead, Hariri was placed under Saudi guard and his mobile phone was confiscated.
The camping trip into the desert with MBS was postponed until after Hariri agreed to read a resignation speech on Saudi television, in which he denounced Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Hariri said the Arab world would “cut off the hands which wickedly extend to it”, and that he feared for his life. The words he read, however, did not sound like his own. It was reported that two Saudi officials had interrogated and threatened him; and that one of them was Saud al-Qahtani.
Western diplomats concluded that, because Iranian-built missiles were being fired at Saudi Arabia from Yemen, MBS had decided to force Hariri out and replace him with a leader who would help curb Iranian influence wherever it appeared, including Lebanon. Hariri’s elder brother, Bahaa, was reportedly the replacement MBS preferred. It took a hastily arranged visit to Riyadh by President Macron of France before Saad Hariri was released, and his resignation was rescinded a few weeks later.
In his Washington Post column, Khashoggi saw the incident as a product of the “Trump effect” – MBS’s strong bond with the American President over their shared hatred of Iran had encouraged impulsive decision-making in the royal palace. “MBS’s rash actions are deepening tensions and undermining the security of the Gulf states and the region as a whole,” he wrote.
Another battle Khashoggi fought in his newspaper columns was for the right of women to drive in the kingdom, which the journalist had campaigned for as editor of al-Watan in 2007. Back then he had bypassed a Saudi ban on public debate over the issue by publishing articles about a woman riding a camel, a donkey or a bicycle instead.
The best-known women’s rights activist was Loujain al-Hathloul, who was jailed for 73 days after attempting to drive her car into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates in 2014. In March 2018, she was detained again, this time by security men in the UAE itself. She was handcuffed and flown by private jet to a Saudi jail where she spent a few days. Then, in May, she was taken from her bed in her father’s house in Riyadh and arrested again, just a month before the ban on driving was due to be lifted.
The month after her detention, Khashoggi told the New Yorker magazine of his fear that the Saudi crown prince was dangerously out of control. “He can do whatever he wants now,” he said. “All the checks and balances are gone.”
“The people who were arrested were not radicals,” he told Vanity Fair. “The majority were reformers for women’s rights and open society. He arrested them to spread fear. He is replacing religious intolerance with political closure.”
If anyone was going to be allowed to claim credit for securing the right to drive, it would be the crown prince, and certainly not those women who campaigned for it.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International alleged that Hathloul was just one of a dozen women’s rights campaigners who were flogged, electrocuted and sexually harassed. The Associated Press quoted its sources as saying at least one was waterboarded and another attempted suicide. The Saudi official press agency countered that they had made “suspicious contact with foreign entities … providing financial support to hostile elements”.
Khashoggi called for the crown prince to release Hathloul and her fellow women drivers. “They should be allowed to finally witness the results of their tears and toil,” he wrote. The online abuse aimed at him by Saudi trolls intensified. One critic said he was a Qatari spy, or even worse, a Turkish one: “Go and have your breakfast at the Turkish embassy in Washington,” his message read, “and enjoy with them your achievements in the betrayal of your country.”
The Saudis naturally denied any mistreatment of Hathloul, but her sister Alia wrote in the New York Times that Saud al-Qahtani was “present several times” when she was tortured and had threatened to kill her and throw her body into the Saudi sewage system. At least two women had seen him in the torture chamber. “I will do whatever I like to you, and then I’ll dissolve you and flush you down the toilet!” Qahtani was quoted as telling one female detainee. When their trial opened in 2019, journalists and diplomats were forbidden from attending.
Khashoggi’s own communications with Qahtani had certainly not ceased. In May 2018, Qahtani invited him to return home safely from Washington.
“Guess who called me today?” Khashoggi asked his friend Khaled Saffuri. “Saud al-Qahtani. He offered me to return to a high position. As adviser to the crown prince. He said ‘you are our son, you are an asset’.”
“Will you go?” Saffuri asked him.
The response was immediate: “Are you kidding me? I don’t trust them one bit. If they catch me, they will kill me.”
‘There must have been a gap’
Khashoggi wrote that he still asked himself the same question when he woke up in Virginia every morning: whether he had been right to speak out; but any ambivalence about his need to escape had gone, in the face of yet more arrests at home. “Religious fanaticism that had tarnished Saudi Arabia’s image for decades has given way to a new and perhaps more pernicious fanaticism,” he wrote. “A cult of blind loyalty to our leader. That is a Faustian bargain that I will not make.”
To make matters worse, the crown prince was being given warm receptions in Europe and the United States. The month before his official visit to Washington, MBS invited David Ignatius of the Washington Post into his palace for a late-night interview.
“We want to work with believers,” the prince explained, at the end of a day which saw reshuffles of government and military jobs by royal decree, including the appointment of a woman cabinet minister. Ignatius asked if human rights activists would be released ahead of the prince’s trip to America.
“If it works, don’t fix it,” came the reply, as MBS pointed out that American and Saudi standards were not the same.
In a speech in April 2018, Khashoggi fondly recalled how long voting lines in Tunisia and Egypt following the Arab Spring had shown that Arabs were ready for democracy. “In Saudi Arabia there are serious reforms that Prince Mohammed is leading. Many of my Saudi colleagues are saying I should support them. I do support them,” he said, before adding: “Saudi leaders are still not interested in democracy … they are saying that absolute monarchy is our preferred form of government.”
In August 2018 Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, also became the target of abuse on Twitter. Her ministry had issued a call – in Arabic – for the release of Samar Badawi, the sister of Raif Badawi, an infamous blogger who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and lashed in a public square. Within hours, the Saudis announced that they were expelling the Canadian ambassador, withdrawing Saudi investments, cancelling flights, recalling home over 8000 students and no longer buying wheat and barley from the Canadian prairies.
Inevitably, Khashoggi weighed into the debate from what he believed was a safe distance, warning the crown prince that he was destroying the reputation his overseas tour had sought to strengthen. “Canada raised the flag against human rights abuses,” he wrote. “We cannot arbitrarily arrest female activists and expect the world to turn a blind eye.”
The same month, surveillance experts at Citizen Lab in the University of Toronto concluded that the Saudi government had infiltrated the mobile phone of Omar Abdulaziz, a 26-year-old Saudi dissident living in Montreal. He was well known for his criticism of the Saudi royal family on social media. More importantly, he was in regular contact with Khashoggi.
Abdulaziz claimed that in June 2017 he inadvertently downloaded spyware by clicking on a text message designed to look as if it was from a well-known courier company informing him about a delivery. The hacker could listen to calls and turn the phone’s camera and microphone into surveillance devices. Abdulaziz claimed that two of his brothers in Jeddah were arrested in a police raid as a result of this monitoring.
Khashoggi, unaware of any danger, had sent Abdulaziz’s phone more than 400 WhatsApp messages from the autumn of 2017 onwards – many of them critical of the crown prince.
Abdulaziz believed the phone hack could have revealed Khashoggi’s communications – and therefore played a role in prompting the operation against him in Istanbul. He later filed a lawsuit, claiming that an Israeli software company, the NSO Group, had spied on him. The company countered that its products were licensed solely to fight terrorism and crime and that their business contracts were vetted by the Israeli government. Israeli news reports said the Saudi government had paid $US55 million for the use of Pegasus spyware in 2017.
Saudi Arabia had always firmly supported the Palestinian cause, but the use of Israeli technology suggested a different narrative: that MBS was prepared to do business with Tel Aviv to get what he wanted. Both Riyadh and Tel Aviv shared a view of Iran as a regional threat and both were talking to President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, about a peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians; but the main concern of Omar Abdulaziz in Canada in the northern summer of 2018 was his personal safety rather than Middle East politics.
In an echo of Khashoggi’s own experience, Abdulaziz was visited by two Saudi emissaries who asked him to return home and work for MBS. The messengers said they had been sent by Saud al-Qahtani. They held out the promise that he could meet MBS the day after he returned, with a hotel in Jeddah already booked for him. They even told Abdulaziz that Khashoggi was thinking of returning home too; and they recommended that he visit the Saudi embassy in Ottawa to make arrangements. However, a friend advised him not to reject any such offer and only to meet Saudi government officials in public places. That friend was none other than Khashoggi, who would tragically fail to follow his own advice that northern autumn in Istanbul.
Faced with a well-organised Twitter campaign against them, the two Saudis had conceived plans for an ‘electronic army’ of their own on social media, an army they called the ‘cyber bees’, designed to debunk Saudi state propaganda. The plan involved sending foreign SIM cards to young Saudis, so that they could be free to criticise their rulers on social media without the authorities making the connection between local Saudi phone numbers and their Twitter accounts. Some 200 cards were in use by the time Khashoggi was killed.
Abdulaziz claimed that Khashoggi had given him $US5000 for the project and pledged up to $US30,000, promising to find more money from rich donors; but in August 2018, Abdulaziz heard that Saudi officials had become aware of the ‘cyber bees’ plan. “How did they know?” Khashoggi asked him in a text message. “There must have been a gap,” Abdulaziz replied, fearing that someone in his network of contacts might have leaked the plan. Three minutes later, Khashoggi wrote back: “God help us.”
On Khashoggi’s last visit to the Washington office of another American friend that summer, he asked her: “Can I just give this up? Can I just not do this anymore? I’m thinking that for two years, I want to go to a faraway island.”
“I said, ‘No, you can’t’,” the friend replied. “You are in a war.”
Instead of flying to a faraway island, Jamal Khashoggi flew to Istanbul.
This is an edited extract from The Killing in the Consulate: Investigating the Life and Death of Jamal Khashoggi by Jonathan Rugman, published by Simon & Schuster ($32.99).